Gears of War 2 Xbox 360 Review

There is sometimes a misconception that one of the key ingredients for an excellent gaming experience is innovation. On the contrary, a brilliantly-designed but unoriginal concept has much more value than an avant-garde idea that fails in practice.

Epic Games’ Lead Designer Clifford “Don’t call me CliffyB” Bleszinski has described Gears of War 2 as “Bigger, better and more badass” than the first game. Surprisingly, that macho claim actually ends up being a rather apt description of this sequel.

Set several months after the ending of the original Gears of War, the sequel sees Marcus Fenix and his fellow COGs desperately trying to prevent the annihilation of the last surviving human city, Jacinto, by the subterranean menace of the Locust Horde. Anyone who has had any experience with the first Gears title will have a good idea of what to expect from Gears 2. The core experience has been refined and improved, whilst at the same time Epic have expanded upon what made the original game so successful.

Almost admirably, Gears of War makes no about bones about the fact that it’s a franchise based around the simple idea of killing everything in sight, and this second game still features the best cover-system in the business, and the revolution that is active reloading. The occasional hiccups that came from having rolling, sprinting and taking cover actions assigned to a single button have been almost entirely removed, so it’s easier than ever to ensure that your character follows your intentions exactly.

One of the highlights of the first Gears was the superb integration of co-operative play into a campaign that felt designed around the concept of teamwork. This is still by far the most enjoyable way to play Gears 2, but for solo players the friendly AI has been hugely improved, and your computer-controlled buddy is now actually a helpful ally, finishing off enemies and helping you up when you’ve been shot down.

A minor but much welcomed new feature is the ability of a downed player to crawl towards help or safety, allowing some limited interaction even when effectively dead. Probably the only really innovative feature of Gears 2 is that co-operative players can set their own individual difficulty levels, removing the restriction for both players to be of similar skill. This is an exceptional way of keeping both players engaged in an experience that is neither frustratingly easy nor difficult.

On the subject of the campaign, I must now mention one of the very few flaws of Gears of War 2, the story. Although the narrative is undoubtedly an immeasurable improvement over the almost non-existent plot of the previous game, it’s still chock-full of paper-thin clichés, profanity-filled dialogue that wouldn’t impress anyone but a 14-year old boy, and terrible characters including the likes of the detestable, dumb, violent, juvenile African-American stereotype that is “The Cole Train”. The side-story concerning Dom’s search for his missing wife is barely touched upon, and only one cut-scene in the whole game is capable of eliciting any emotion at all.

Despite these failings, the campaign does at least manage to be varied in location and challenge. The improvements that have been made by Epic to the Unreal 3 game engine in the last two years are certainly visible in the stunning lighting, increased graphical detail and scale of the campaign. There are now many more types of Locust to battle against, requiring varied tactics from the player. Some of the more interesting additions are Kantus priests who can revive their fellow Locusts, and the lumbering Maulers with their shields and explosive maces.

Luckily, the player has an improved and expanded arsenal with which to combat these threats. The Locust weaponry such as the HammerBurst rifle are now more effective and no longer feel like last resorts, and the newly introduced flamethrower and mortar, once mastered, are very powerful short and long-range weapons respectively.

Players also now have the ability to use downed enemies as living shields, as well as using real shields as portable cover. This wider repertoire of skills is often necessary, as the more expansive battlefields can get pretty hectic on harder difficulties. The 18-rating is well earned as Gears 2 still features the same the shamefully-enjoyable ultra-violence and enough blood to drown in (literally, at one point). Even an unexciting vehicle level and a disappointingly short and easy final boss can’t prevent the campaign from being an overwhelmingly entertaining experience.

After you’re done with the ten-odd hours of the story, then you still have the meat of Gears of War 2 remaining to sink your teeth into, the multiplayer. Of course, the usual “kill-the-other-team” modes of Warzone and Execution, along with the “territories” modes of Annex and King of the Hill all return, but Epic have increased the team-sizes from four to five, and thrown some even more interesting options into the mix.

Wingman pits five two-man teams against each other in a frantic battle for survival. In this mode teamwork and communication are more important than ever, and the fact that player can now stick grenades to walls as makeshift proximity mines, means that caution is now equally as important as aggression.

Flushing enemies out from cover is now easier than before thanks to Ink grenades which release deadly clouds of poisonous gas, and Smoke grenades are now doubly effective thanks to a concussive effect that can knock even the abnormally-burly Gears to the ground.

Gears veterans will either be overjoyed or dismayed to learn that the hugely overpowered Gnasher shotgun has been toned down to provide a greater balance between weapons, the unfair host advantage that plagued the first game has also been eliminated. The Chainsaw Bayonet is still an almost-guaranteed kill at close-range, but Epic has introduced Chainsaw Duels, changing Saw-on-Saw battles from a simple coin-toss into a button-mashing test of skill. Players are now also no longer invincible whilst performing the chainsawing animation making it a much more risky manoeuvre.

To entice gamers away from purchasing second hand copies of Gears, Epic have included a code within all brand new copies for a download of five re-skinned classic Gears of War maps including the infamous Gridlock and Tyro Station. Along with these old favourites are ten new multiplayer maps. Early favourites include Avalanche – in which the titular snow-slide dynamically transforms the battlefield at random intervals, Hail – which often forces players to seek shelter from the hazardous RazorHail of Sera, the fantastically claustrophobic Ruins whose tight corridors see a ton of frantic firefights, and the excellently expansive River, with its central bridge and Barn-Houses that are the site of many a heroic last-stand.

Gears 2 also introduces its own twist on Capture The Flag, which sees players competing over an AI-controlled human civilian who roams the map armed with a shotgun. This ‘Meat-Flag’ must be subdued and dragged back to base. Much hilarity ensues from seeing in post-match results that the flag has more kills than you…

But possibly the best new addition has to be Horde mode which is a co-operative mode for up to five players to face off against 50 waves of increasingly aggressive Locust. With the varied and numerous species of Locust now present, a good strategy is key and anyone playing as a lone wolf isn’t likely to last very long.

Horde can be played on any map and difficulty level, each providing a pleasingly different experience. Thankfully, the game can be restarted from the current wave if everyone is eliminated, and the sheer extent of possible scenarios ensures that Horde will have an impressive lifespan on Xbox Live.

The inclusion of multiplayer tutorials, offline matches with bots, matchmaking, improved camera options for deceased players spectating a match and new photo capture and sharing options rounds out a package that appears to be the only offering on Xbox 360 that could come close to rivalling the all-conquering Halo 3.

Gears of War 2 is almost the epitome of a video game sequel. It offers essentially the same gameplay experience as before, and yet at the same time it has been improved and expanded in almost every aspect. The shallow storytelling can’t mask the superbly tight gunplay that underpins this title, and the online options will guarantee that this game has a robust multiplayer community until the inevitable release of Gears of War 3.

9/10

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Version tested: Xbox 360

Developer: Epic Games

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Genre: Third-person shooter